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Prayer

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The following is an excerpt from the diary of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), in which he recounts an incident from his early childhood.

…I then remembered how as a small child, still studying with the late Reb Yekutiel the melamed, I would run to the synagogue to listen to father[2] pray, and how heavy my heart was: why doesn’t father pray briskly, as the entire congregation does, as my uncles do? I once asked why this is so and my uncle Raza[3] told me that father cannot pronounce the Hebrew words easily, and I agonized greatly over this.

I enter the synagogue. Not a soul is to be found, only father is standing, his face to the wall, praying. He is beseeching G-d, he is appealing for mercy. But I do not understand: why is he supplicating more than all other worshippers? Why does he need G-d’s mercy more than other people?

Suddenly, father begins to sob. My heart sinks within me: father is crying! Not a soul in the house of G-d, and father is crying. I bend an ear and I hear him say, “Shema Yisroel…,” and sob, “Hashem Elokeinu…,” and sob. He then falls silent. And then again, in a mighty voice emerging from the depths of his heart, “Hashem echad!” in a flood of tears and a terrifying voice.

This time I could no longer contain myself. I went to my mother (may she live long) and wept: Why does father pray longer than all the other worshipers? My uncle Raza says that father has difficulty pronouncing the words. Why cannot father recite Hebrew at a proper speed? And today I saw that father is crying, come with me, my mother, I will show you that father is crying…!

“What can I do?” responded my mother. “Can I have him sent to cheder? Go to your grandmother and ask her, perhaps she can do something about this.”

I rushed to take the advice of my mother and went to my grandmother (of blessed memory), the saintly Rebbetzin, and posed to her my innocent question. My grandmother said to me: “Your father is a great chassid and tzaddik.[4] With each and every word he utters, he first thinks of the meaning of the word that he is saying.”

I remember how at that moment she calmed me, and how from then on my attitude toward my father changed; for I knew that father is apart from and above other men. With his every move I saw that father is father. Father awakes in the morning and dons the tefillin and reads the Shema. Then, he goes to serve his mother tea (I also wish to do so but they prevent me by saying that I will be hurt by the boiling water).

Father washes his hands before meals not like other people. Other people pour water over their hands only twice, but father takes the pitcher with his right hand, then hands it over to his left hand, and pours three times in succession over his right hand; then he takes another pitcher of water and, using the towel to hold it in his right hand, pours three times over his left.

Every day, before the afternoon minchah prayers, father again goes to serve a cup of tea to his mother and sits there for about an hour. Everyone speaks, speaks with gusto, but father is mostly silent. Sometimes he speaks, speaking softly.

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[2]  Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (1860-1920), fifth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.

[3]  Rabbi Zalman Aaron, Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s older brother.

[4]  Pious and righteous man.

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